Nostalgia: Yorkshire giant of the co-op movement

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In its heyday the Barnsley British Co-operative Society Ltd (BBCS) was a colossal retail organisation and even claimed to be the country’s largest co-op outside London.

Its wide variety of retail areas ranged from funeral parlours to filling stations and footwear to flour milling.

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A small book – Barnsley British Co-operative Society Ltd Coronation History 1862-1902 – charts the history of the company during the early important years of development. Published to commemorate the coronation of Edward VII, the book was presented free to every one of the BBCS’s 20,000 members. This perhaps was intended to underline the organisation’s achievements over the previous 40 years and the part played in everyone’s life.

The book claims the BBCS’s story was much like that of other societies – how in the days of scanty earnings, meagre education, and lack of social benefits or pleasures, a small band of uneducated yet shrewd, far sighted and, above all, lion-hearted men pinned their faith to the principle of co-operation. They were intent on improving the then miserable conditions of the working classes. There were no facilities for parliamentary legislation in those days as understood today, and these men not only thought but acted to “improve life’s shining hour”.

In spite of flourishes elsewhere, it is argued that the co-operative movement began in Europe in the 19th century, primarily in Britain and France. A number of organisations were initially successful, but most founded in the early 19th century had failed by 1840.

Arguably, it was not until 1844 when the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers established the ‘Rochdale Principles’ on which they ran their co-operative, that the basis for development and growth of the modern co-operative movement was established.

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The BBCS started with a tiny, cheap but well situated shop at no 16 Market Street, Barnsley, on March 13 1862 with an annual rent of £14. The receipts from the first two months varied from £39 10s to £19. 10s. After only a matter of months a dividend of 1s in the £ was paid but later was cut to 9d. In time a larger shop was obtained at the junction of Wellington Street and New Street and the first branch store was opened at Dodworth on February 1 1863.

Situated in a district where colliery disasters were too well known, the BBCS had to cope during its early career with struggle and tragedies, which at that time were foreign to most co-op societies.

When the BBCS was scarcely nine months old an explosion occurred at Edmund’s Main Colliery, Worsbrough Dale, near Barnsley, on December 8 1862, resulting in, it was reported, “fifty nine men and boys being launched into eternity”. Four years later and only two weeks prior to Christmas, 364 men and boys were killed in huge explosions on December 12 and 13 at Oaks Colliery. Thus, it may be said that, as most of the BBCS’s members were colliers, its fortunes tended to follow theirs. In both explosions many prominent members of the BBCS were killed.

During these tragic years the BBCS was called upon to return the savings entrusted with them to people who wanted to bury their dead.

Around the time of the 1893 miners’ strike, the BBCS directors relaxed the rules covering withdrawal of shares so that money could be claimed without notice.

Despite numerous setbacks and several calamities the BBCS flourished during the last 20 years of the 19th century. In 1880 a corn mill was built at Summer Lane, Barnsley, and over the ensuing years the company added to its business a bakery, mineral water factory, cold stores, slaughter house and a grocery warehouse.

Also opened in and around Barnsley were drapery, boot and shoe and game departments. Attaching great importance to education, the BBCS’s new headquarters, built during 1886 in central Barnsley, housed a lecture hall, reading room and library.

Shortly before the First World War the BBCS turnover topped a million pounds for the first time and the ‘divi’ leapt to 2s 10d in the pound.

Spectacular festivities were staged to celebrate its seemingly unstoppable growth and golden jubilee. Eight thousand children were invited to a tea given at the Queen’s Ground and many more celebrations were held in the town’s outlying areas.

An imposing flour mill at Mexborough was added to the BBCS’s assets in 1914 with sales continuing after the hostilities until the organisation boasted it was turning over £1,000 worth of goods each hour.

In the immediate post-war years the co-operative ideal floundered not only for the BBCS but with many others across the country. Competition grew, selling techniques changed and co-ops raising prices to pay for the ‘divi’ worked against them. The arrival of supermarkets sounded the death knell with countless stores closing.

Many people thought the BBCS had weathered the post-war economic storm and confidence was boosted by new shops opening. But in 1970 the BBCS paid no ‘divi’ for the first time in its history. During the first three months of the year, 42 of the BBCS’s 268 selling or productive units were closed and 400 of the 2,500 staff released.

Loss of confidence in the company encouraged members to withdraw assets which plummeted from around £10m to about £1,250,000. The company was also losing weekly about £6,700.

The BBCS was taken over by Co-operative Retail Services, becoming the Barnsley British Region of the CRS.